Defending the United Nations Human Rights Council

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It isn’t often you hear the United Nations Human Rights Council praised, but that’s the message Peggy Hicks delivered at the recent Human Rights Law and Policy Conference in Minneapolis. Hicks is the global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and a vocaldefender of the two-year-old United Nations Human Rights Council, which replaced the controversy-plagued UN Human Rights Commission. A quick poll of the audience of lawyers, human rights advocates, and laypeople revealed a flurry of affirmation from those who knew of the council, which then dwindled to a few tentative hands for those who had heard anything good about it. 

The council has received frequent criticism for its repeated condemnation of Israel, coupled with a lack of strong action against other states committing serious human rights abuses. Hicks rebutted two common Israel-related criticisms: first, the council has condemned states other than Israel, including Sudan, Burma, North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia; and second, the council may spend a disproportionate amount of time on Israel, but it is far from the majority of its time. In addition to the council’s actions on the above states, it also did significant work on Sri Lanka, Hicks said, and held a special session on Sudan, sending a mission there (though the government blocked its entry). 

Hicks’ defense of the council was modest, but she offered suggestions for improvement, since, she said, we can’t replace it with anything stronger. Getting Southern nongovernmental organizations to the United Nations office in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council meets, would help those groups put pressure on their own governments, Hicks said. State membership on the council also could be improved through continuing to encourage competitive campaigns for seats on the council–competition which wasn’t a feature of the Human Rights Commission. (In the council’s second year, Belarus–which is infamous for cracking down on its media, political dissidents, and human rights groups–lost its bid for membership to Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, a defeat Hicks commended as a sign that the council might eventually build a membership of states with strong human rights records.) Hicks also praised the council’s ability to examine the human rights record of all UN member states through a four-year cycle of Universal Periodic Review begun this April. The United States is up for review at the council’s 10th session in 2010. 

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